Twenty-Four Hours In A Small, Highly Televised Riot
FERGUSON, Mo. — Ferguson, Mo. is a small, oddly shaped suburb bounded on three sides by interstate highways. It’s maybe two suburbs over from St. Louis in a land of endless little burgs that run haphazardly together.
Ferguson is clean. It’s halfway quaint. The side streets are lined with big, leafy trees and decently-maintained ranch-style houses. Except for these nightly riots of recent vintage, this town of 21,203 has a strong working-class vibe.
West Florissant Avenue is the main drag where most of the protesting and rioting has happened. It’s your basic Midwestern city thoroughfare featuring numerous small businesses. Northland Chop Suey. Crystal Nails. There are national chains, too. The gleaming McDonald’s down by Ferguson Avenue — the one where Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly cried — is a major hub. Business has boomed there since the Aug. 9 police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Another local business that has boomed recently is A.M. Richards Glass Co., which has been sending crews to board up local businesses and replace shattered glass storefronts.
It was a cloudy, muggy Sunday afternoon when two intrepid reporters from The Daily Caller arrived on the scene — in the parking lot of a still boarded-up restaurant called The Original Reds BBQ (where someone had installed a port-a-potty).
Daytime would be a much different experience than the chaos brought by nightfall. The mood among the small pockets of protesters during the afternoon was a reasonably festive anger. It was sort of like an unhappy parade.
Most everyone who showed up was black. The people who were not black were virtually all journalists, nutty activists or socialist agitators thinking maybe, this time, their moment has come.
The focal point of Sunday afternoon’s action was the totally-looted, burned-out QuikTrip where surveillance video allegedly shows Michael Brown forcefully procuring his last box of cigars. The south side of the QuikTrip has been covered in a massive piece of graffiti saying “RIP Mike” and “Fuck da police.” Smaller bits of graffiti absolutely infest the other remains of the QuikTrip.
Across the street, on the asphalt in front of a carwash, representatives from a company called Life Wireless had set up a yellow-and-green information tent.
Life Wireless is a company that provides free cell phone service. To be eligible, your income must be below a certain amount or you must participate in one of seven government assistance programs (e.g., food stamps). While the free phone program preceded President Barack Obama’s administration, you might know it under its more colloquial name: “Obama phones.”
“We just want to come out here where people was at,” one of the phone hawkers told TheDC.
Next to the cell phone representatives, two guys were selling “Justice For Michael Brown” T-shirts out of the back of a van. The cost for a shirt was $15. Several sizes (including children’s sizes) were available.
At one point, a young woman calling herself “a community organizer from Atlanta” berated one of the salesmen after learning that one dollar of the proceeds of each shirt sale would go to the bereaved family of Michael Brown. She firmly believed it was a lowball amount.
“You got to talk to him,” the salesman told her, pointing at the other salesman.
Cars passing the QuikTrip honked incessantly as they drove slowly by.
Chants were equally incessant. “Hands up, don’t shoot” was the most popular mantra. The most dedicated chanters hoisted both arms in the air with their palms facing out and paced to and ‘fro.
Simple posters were also prevalent. “No Justice No Peace” read one. “Justice For Michael Brown” read another. “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” read several more. It was certainly helpful that someone had brought a bunch of poster board and markers.
The protest scene dragged on, but it was time to head over to Greater Grace Church in St. Louis proper to hear Al Sharpton and some lesser luminaries.
By the time the special service had started, a fire-hazard-size crowd had packed the entire place like sardines. Even the lobby, where bland, contemporary gospel music piped pleasantly through unseen speakers, was chock-a-block.
Journalists lined either side aisle of the nave. Cameramen jammed in below the stage. Audience members held up signs. Two kids waved upside down American flags.
Earlier in the week, an audience had booed Jesse Jackson off stage at a protest rally because of his ill-timed attempt to collect donations for his church.
“Jesse Jackson said the strategy now is to register to vote, which is bullshit,” an old, gray-haired, white socialist from Oakland, Calif had told TheDC outside the QuikTrip. This guy had been trying hawk copies of “The Militant,” a socialist rag. “It’s only a dollar if you want it,” he had explained.
Jackson was in attendance at Greater Grace on Sunday, but he did not speak. Anyway, the main draw here was clearly Sharpton.
After a woman called the service with a spirited, staccato prayer, a choir and an accompanying live band rocked the house. During a strong rendition of “The Presence of the Lord Is Here,” many members of the assembled crowd were standing up, dancing and clapping in unison.
Bishop L.O. Jones then welcomed the flock of attendees and introduced Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who received an epic standing ovation.
Johnson, who had previously promised not to use tear gas on protesters, is an adept, soft-spoken but firm performer.
“I wear this uniform. I’m sorry,” he said. “This is my neighborhood. You are my family.”
He also spoke about his own son who, he said, wears his pants saggy, his hat crooked, and has tattoos running up his arm.
“And that’s my baby! That’s my son,” the police captain said, to raucous applause.
Tallahassee, Fla.-based attorney Benjamin Crump, who has represented Trayvon Martin’s family and now represents the family of Michael Brown, appeared beside Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden.
McSpadden did not speak. Crump’s speech was drunk with anger. “Nothing can justify execution,” he yelled. “Hands up means surrender,” he also hollered. He also managed to slip in a reference to Martin.
When Sharpton finally appeared in front of the podium, he proceeded to give a stem-winder for the ages. Several times, he revved up the crowd into an orgy of applause.
“We … have … had … enough!” he shouted.
“Nobody can go to the White House until they stop by our house!”
The famous activist demanded to know why police had released a videotape of Brown shoplifting from the QuikTrip. He said that, of course, he does not condone shoplifting, but he also doesn’t believe the tape has anything to do with police officer Darren Wilson shooting Brown.
“We want to deal with the shocking display of military equipment,” Sharpton added. He suggested that the government should stop spending millions of dollars on this equipment and spend it on jobs programs instead.
To massive amount of applause, he bellowed: “We are not looters. We are liberators.”
Then came the best line of the afternoon: “Michael Brown gonna change this town!”
After a brief appearance by Martin Luther King III, Sharpton stood up again, making a direct appeal for cash for Brown’s family. “Come on. Come on,” he said, over and over, auctioneer style.
In the grand finale, Sharpton impressively sang an old gospel standard.
Outside, after it was all over, chants of “no justice no peace” could be heard amid a sea of people.
The hot, sticky afternoon ebbed slowly into a hot, sticky night that turned violent.
The violence began around 8 p.m. and largely dissipated by about 10:30 p.m. thanks mainly to lots of tear gas.
Tear gas is annoying. It makes your throat hurt. It stings your eyes and makes you cry involuntarily. Some nerdy-looking guy who identified himself as a school employee said you can kill the burn with a concoction of water and antacid.
Hundreds of protesters and troublemakers roamed up and down West Florissant Avenue before the tear gas started. Surgical masks were a popular fashion accessory. Some mysterious benefactor had distributed them.
Looters prowled, damaging businesses and shattering glass in the few storefronts along West Florissant that still remained intact including a Domino’s Pizza and an O’Reilly’s Auto Parts. Some of them eventually wandered up Chambers Road, where they destroyed and reportedly set fire to a little store called Dellwood Market.
A large group of police in full riot gear had taken over the concrete lot in front of a Mobil station at the corner of West Florissant and Chambers. They stood in a line near the gas pumps.
About 100 people milled around. Many of them were journalists — feeling brave, no doubt, but at the same time basking in the warm, safe glow the heavy police presence provided just right there.
The crew from RT, the Russian English-language news channel, wore bicycle helmets. They spoke Russian to each other. They smoked a lot of cigarettes.
Everyone else had come to berate the cops with brash, threatening language as the midnight curfew loomed. These protesters spent a solid hour yelling furiously at the line of silent cops at the Mobil station.
The “hands up, don’t shoot” was constant.
“Are you gonna beat us?” yelled a tatted-up white guy with a bandana covering half his face. “Fuck you. No justice!”
Another man promised a peaceful protest until the bewitching curfew hour. It was impossible to tell if he was making a promise of civility or an ominous threat.
Another man — a black man — surveyed the assembled officers and noted, “One black police!”
Someone nearby responded, “Obama’s hitting golf balls.”
At one point, someone threw a bottle at a police car. Someone else jumped briefly on top of the vehicle. This fleeting moment of chaos caused the gathered crowd to scatter.
When everyone returned, a guy dressed in all white showed up to read from the Old Testament. It was the various curses of the Covenant.
A rail-thin guy in a white T-shirt stepped forward from the crowd and performed a dance to no music.
As midnight drew nigh, the cops — with their batons and rifles — trudged slowly and inexorably in a line toward the perimeter of the Mobil parking lot.
A policeman came over a loudspeaker. His script was: “Please assist us in helping you by going to your cars and homes.” These words were occasionally accompanied by a piercing siren sound.
Other officers told journalists to move behind the police line. By the way, Daily Caller pro tip: When in a riot situation, just say you are a journalist if want to waltz safely behind a long line of cops. Nobody checks your credentials or anything. It helps to have a camera or an iPhone. (You have to look the part.)
Safely-ensconced behind the line of cops, a journalist stood beside a gas pump berating his cameraman just like arrogant reporter Richard Thornburg in “Die Hard.”
Cameramen raised up the tools of their trade, preparing to film the people beyond the wall of police suffering their lesser fates.
By 12:01 a.m., though, almost all the protesters had voluntarily absconded.
At a 1 a.m. press conference in the heavily-guarded confines of a Target parking lot over a mile away, Capt. Johnson indicated that several protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails during a march down West Florissant at around 8:30 p.m.
A handful of protesters suffered gunshot wounds. The crowds prevented an ambulance from arriving on the scene.
A large group of people had overrun the McDonald’s. Employees were forced to lock themselves in a storage room until police arrived.
Johnson said it was that these various incidents of violence caused police to disperse tear gas at protesters and shut down several city blocks well before the 12 a.m. curfew.
Johnson also said that the National Guard would not be called to restore order to Ferguson.
However, shortly after the press conference, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops onto the suburban St. Louis streets.
Photos in this story by Seth Richardson